Justifiable jubilance swept the Washington sporting scene last night with the news that the Wizards had won the NBA draft lottery and will have the right to the first pick, expected to be University of Kentucky point guard John Wall. I think Dan Steinberg is right to point this out as a relatively incredible run of luck, born out of the hideous misfortunes of the city’s pro sports teams. And Alexander Ovechkin is certainly strong evidence for a strategy based on remaking teams on the personality and talent of individual, appealing players. But while leaning heavily on splashy first-round picks in any sport may make sense for franchises that are rebuilding, it’s also a gamble that could reap serious disappointment.
At their best, quality draft picks can lure casual fans into following teams in more detail. If Stephen Strasburg was going to spend more than a cup of coffee in the Nationals farm system, the team’s still-nascent fan base might have had a chance to get more invested in who he was working with each step of the way and to learn more about his potential and weaknesses (and as someone who grew up a Vermont Lake Monsters fan, anything that brings them more attention is fine by me). Of course it’s great for the team that Strasburg’s ready to go fast—as we’ve learned in recent days, no start is so hot as to mean a team can turn down improvements.
And identifying with a specific player gives fans a way to identify themselves and what they like about a sport. Ovechkin’s exciting play, openness, and apparent sense of humor have won him the kind of followers who’ll post 20,000 messages on online forums, though at least some commentators are wondering if he’s undergone a personality change.
Fluctuations like that are precisely why relying on top draft picks can be only a short-term strategy. After that initial excitement fades, fans have the right to expect performance and personality from individual athletes and investments from franchises. It’s incredibly depressing to watch a great player exert terrific effort for naught. You can follow a batting or pitching or passing or scoring race, but night by night, you can’t really wach it. Teams can’t survive on fan bases that tune in and show up once every five nights when someone like Strasburg pitches or only if they hear that someone like Wall or Ovechkin is having a great night. And even if those players fulfill early promise, they can get hurt, their development can plateau, they can go crazy, or develop an inconvenient fondness for firearms. If investments in top picks are a leading indicator of team owners’ intentions to invest strategically in their franchises, that’s great. But one pick does not a portfolio—or a full, effective team—make.
Fortunately, Ted Leonsis agrees. “The lesson is, one player can really, really help,” he said in response to the lottery win. “But you have to build around them. You still have work to do. I’m excited, but I’m also responsibly sanguine about it because I know how much work we have to do to make a great team.”